"Mom, what's wrong with that girl?" a little voice whispers as I swing my daughter with special needs at the park. "Oh, there's nothing wrong with her, honey. Now come on, let's get going. How would you like to go down the slide?" The mother shuffles her daughter away from the swings as I shift my weight from side to side and give my child another push. I don't speak up, but I should. As a mom to a child with disabilities, I want my daughter to be accepted. I want her to have friends.
Fifty-seven thousand students with disabilities are enrolled in the Chicago Public School system. Thanks to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act issued in 1975, most typically developing kids have daily opportunities to interact with individuals who have special needs. They may know someone with a disability at school, or at church, or on their extracurricular soccer team.
It's great when parents initiate open, informative and loving conversations about special needs with their kids at home. But how many take the time to talk to their kids about disability? How many parents know what to say?
"I think it's hard to know what to say or what not to say. I always feel like I'm going to say the wrong thing, so I say nothing," admits Julie Long, mom to one daughter.
It's not as difficult as it may seem.
Having a conversation with children about special needs requires a little time, openness and encouragement. It doesn't mean the parent has all the answers. If your child has a classmate with a disability, ask him about it. "How's John doing in your class? What does he like to do? Do you talk to him much?"
Opening questions will help you gauge how comfortable your child is with the subject. He may have lots to say, and you'll realize there isn't much for you to bring up. But if he gets quiet, it is probably a good idea to delve deeper.
Here's an easy guide to use with your child during a conversation about children with special needs to help them be a good friend:
1. Be smart: Remember that his disability is only part of him. Every person is different. Accept your classmate for who he is. Learn about his special needs. Also, know that you can't catch the disability. It is OK to ask questions. Talk to your teacher or to another trusted adult if there is something you don't understand.
2. Be patient: Some of her behaviors may bother you. Your friend is not trying to annoy you. She might need more time to answer your questions or help to finish an activity. Kids with special needs sometimes think differently and act differently (as we all do!). If your friend does something that offends you, calmly explain to her what bothered you or talk to an adult.
3. Be inclusive: Inclusive is a big word. It just means to invite your classmate to join in activities with you. Or offer to teach your friend how to play. Clear directions help everyone understand things better. Try not to be hurt if he says no.
4. Be sensitive: Join your friend in the activities he enjoys. Talk about topics that interest him. Maybe your friend really likes trains. It makes him feel good when you listen and appreciate the things he loves. Praise your friend for the things he likes.
5. Be brave: Children with special needs often are made fun of or bullied. Be brave and defend your classmate. If he is being teased or bullied, tell the teacher or another adult right away. It is never OK to bully another child. Sometimes kids with special needs have a harder time understanding sarcasm and jokes. Don't tease your friend. Don't allow others to tease him either.
6. Be yourself: If you are unsure of how to act around your friend, be yourself. Tell him what you like/dislike. Encourage your friend to be her/himself. No two people are the same. Some differences are just more noticeable.
Broaching the subject of special needs with children will give them confidence and diminish the fear of the unknown at school or at the playground.
"Any effort is appreciated," says Pam Matesevac, mom to 2-year-old Hannah, who has Down syndrome. "At this point Hannah is still young, but even if kids reach out and make silly faces at her, it shows they are trying to communicate and we appreciate it."
Who knows, maybe you'll even find yourself at the park swinging next to someone with special needs. "Mom, why does that little girl look different than me?" your child may ask. "Remember what we talked about at home about special needs?"
"Let's say hello. It will be fun to make a new friend."
Gillian Marchenko is a Chicago mom and freelance writer. She has penned a memoir about special needs expected to be released later this year.